Today on my own blog I’m going to write about Ten Ways to Tell It’s The 5th of July– as in, “Cats still haven’t come out from under the bed”…
But here, I get to talk about my favorite subject today, my favorite way to research. Yes, I know it was supposed to be about research websites, but all I’m going to say about researching historicals on the web is: whatever it is, it’s there. Just search. If you want to know something, email me and I’ll help you if I can.
I love research. I’d do it just as quickly as I’d write. With eight tall bookcases full of books, the internet at my fingertips, a stack of old maps, I’ve always got plenty I can do. But give me a suitcase and I’ll be off to exotic places. Because traveling is my favorite research. I write about England because it’s There, not Here. I tried to write about Sumatra once, secretly envisioning a research trip. But my agent branded my story “The single most unsellable idea I’d ever had.” No matter. There are other places, and if nothing else I can dream about writing about them. And when I go there, it’s even more than a travel in space. When I see things I’ve studied in old engravings, I get an enormous rush of travel in time, to the time and place once sketched a hundred or so years ago. I can see it as it was, as well as as it is now. See if you can get what I mean from my pictures:
In 2004, I finally got my first trip to England. I had to see Haddon Hall, which I swiped and rebuilt to my own purposes. I had developed almost an obsession for the place, even collecting engravings and books about it. I had to see if I got it right. Yep, everything but the horses and carriages.
Then there was Bath, where I’d set Aphrodite’s Brew. Beautiful, picturesque, even in the rain. I even pin-pointed exactly the house where my hero lived, and across the circle, the heroine’s house, just exactly as I expected it. It’s one thing to see them in books and read about them, but it’s something else to actually be there, breathe the air, see the ancient streaks of soot on a fireplace and feel beneath your feet the worn-down stone of stairs trodden by unknown feet over so many centuries. It’s funny how so many places that seemed so cavernous in my imagination are so small, enclosed- actually cozy.
Being there is the only way to grasp the sense of things like tapestries hanging over doorways (not anymore- they’re much too fragile now) to conserve the heat from one central fireplace. Going in rainy September helped me to understand why people wore so much clothing. If I lived there in the early 19th Century, I’d want my neck covered too!
I can’t honestly claim I went to Hawaii to research, because I know I’ll never write the book I dreamed of there. I’ll never find a use for the giant dragonflies that zoomed in and out of the fog at the top of Waimea Canyon. But someday I might have my hero sail into Kealakekua Bay with Captain James Cook.
Nor will I likely write about the reincarnation story that came to me in a dream over thirty years ago, set in the remote jungles of the Yucatan among the Maya. But I studied them in college and have always been fascinated with the Mayan culture. So when I had my chance, I had to see the ancient pyramids and temples swallowed up by jungle and only now being excavated enough to visit extensively.
Now the trip of a lifetime looms in front of me. We planned it barely a month before the gas crunch suddenly exploded into the news. With all our reservations made and paid for, we’ll obviously go now or never. I studied Spanish extensively in high school, and Barcelona is our first stop. But it’s Italy I’ve longed to see since my early teens. Yes, I really was an ancient history geek even back then. But will Pompeii, Herculaneum, Rome, Florence, Pisa be so modern I won’t recognize the past that fascinates me? Will I find stories to write, even if the market isn’t interested in them?